Kitty Gurnos-Davies: Ghosts on the South Bank – A Walking Tour of the Festival of Britain

Audio version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text version

Join me on a walking tour of the Festival of Britain.

In the Summer of 1951, the wedge of land between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge was populated by a series of temporary architectural structures built to house exhibitions that showcased innovation in British science, industry, and design. Notable amongst these were the Royal Festival Hall (still standing), the Dome of Discovery (which, at the time, was the largest dome in the world with a diameter of 365 feet), and the Skylon, a cigar-shaped steel sculpture that reached vertically into the air, visible for miles around.

London, Festival of Britain, 1951. CON_B04273_F001_046, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

A new aesthetic known as the “Festival Style” emerged from the innovative architecture, furniture, textile, and graphic design featured in the construction of the site. Inspired by International Modernism, the Festival of Britain was perceived by many to be a successful modelling of new principles of urban planning that introduced cutting-edge design to the lived environment. The festival was a success with many architects, designers, and the public alike, with around 8.5 million visitors between May and September 1951.

However, the striking development of the South Bank was not popular with everybody. The following year, a new Conservative government came to power. Headed by Churchill, the site (and the Skylon in particular) was understood to be a symbol of Labour’s successful project to lift the spirits of the post-War British public still enduring austerity and rationing. Famously, Churchill ordered that the Skylon be destroyed. Popular imagination has it that the sculpture’s cables were cut so that the structure toppled into the Thames where it still rests. The reality, of course, is far less romantic. The Skylon and the steel roof of the Dome of Discovery were melted down by a London scrap metal company and repurposed into letter knives and other commemorative souvenirs; the utopic symbol of Labour’s reform fittingly transformed by the new government into capitalist commodities.

Aside from the Royal Festival Hall, there are no physical remains of the Festival of Britain. I can’t help but wonder; what ghosts were left behind as these iconic structures were torn down? Might they have been disturbed when the London Eye was winched into place twenty years ago?

Inspired by the Conway Library’s collection of photographs of the Festival of Britain held by The Courtauld, I retrace the steps of visitors to the Festival of Great Britain to find out. You’re welcome to come with me. Armed with my medium format camera and a few rolls of black and white film (Ilford HP5, if you’re interested), I walk the length of the South Bank in search of the ghosts of festivals past.

First Stop

From the Embankment, we look across the Thames at the site occupied by the Festival of Britain in 1951. We are met with the familiar sight of the London Eye. Towering above County Hall and neighbouring high-rise office blocks, it is near-impossible to imagine what the South Bank looked like before the wheel was installed at the cusp of the last millennium.

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

Boats chug up and down the river and passers-by admire the view from the many bridges crisscrossing the Thames as the London Eye slowly creeps through its rotation.

Look again.

The Skylon tower has reappeared next to the London Eye. The cigar-shaped body propped up on spindly legs recalls Louise Bourgeois’s colossal spider sculpture that stood downstream, outside the Tate Modern many years after the 1951 festival. The Dome of Discovery stretches out in front of the London Eye, the boxy Sea and Ships pavilion visible in front. Look to the left of the Dome. Here, we have the swooping crescent of The People of Britain exhibition (today we might ask, which people? whose Britain?). To the left of the Skylon, the Regatta Restaurant has been replaced with the glass structure of the Power and Production exhibition. For, while the Skylon and Dome are in situ, the other exhibitions jostle for space on the South Bank. They have rearranged themselves, desperate to be seen by us again. After all, if the London Eye can coexist with the Dome of Discovery, why wouldn’t the other Festival structures shuffle around through the flattening and regeneration of the South Bank?

Second stop

Now, let’s cross the river on Westminster Bridge to investigate the site more closely. Descending down the steps on our left, we head towards the London Eye. Set behind the giant wheel is the highly manicured Jubilee Gardens. It is here that the Dome of Discovery once sat. Amidst the dreary office buildings and clinically sculpted paths that curve through the green lawn and bare trees, it is near-impossible to imagine how the vast domed structure might have fitted into such a space.

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

If we listen carefully we can hear a babble of excited voices. Skirts swish around the legs of two young women striding across the grass. A child plays by the side of the path.

All of a sudden, the Festival unfolds before us.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

The famous abacus screen designed by Edward Miller cuts diagonally across the bottom of the path, setting out the boundaries of the festival site while the Skylon towers in the background to the left of County Hall.

Let’s take a closer look at the Dome of Discovery.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

Legs stretch down from the domed roof to support the UFO-shaped building, designed by architect Ralph Tubbs. Inside are exhibits on the theme of British exploration. The visitors descending the staircase on the left are returning to the South Bank from the polar regions, the depths of the sea, and outer space.

We, too, must return to the edge of Jubilee Gardens as we know it. Blink, and the Dome of Discovery has returned to its rightful place in the photograph held within the Conway Library.

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.
London, Festival of Britain, Dome of Discovery, 1951. CON_B04273_F001_017, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

Third stop

Let’s walk under the bridge in the middle of the photograph to the back of the Royal Festival Hall, its domed roof visible towards the left of the image. From here, we’ll clamber up the stairs that lead onto the terrace overlooking the Thames.

In the early afternoon of a dreary Tuesday in December, the South Bank is all but empty. It’s hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of visitors weaving their way through the crowds to visit the different exhibitions or clustering around the glass display cases that lined the bank of the river. Yet, gazing out across the river at the rectangular buildings neatly dotted with pinpricked windows, our view is the same. So much so, in fact, that it is possible to overlay the 1951 photograph of festival-goers over the image I am currently taking.

When I return home to my little London flat this evening, I’ll develop the negatives over my bathtub. Hung to dry overnight, these will be scanned into my computer to be laid underneath the 1951 image from the Conway Library. It is only as I crouch over my laptop in the corner of my kitchen and carefully remove the background of the original image (and my photo begins to show through) that will become quite so apparent how little the vista has changed.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies

Final stop

Crossing to the other side of the Royal Festival Hall we walk up onto the highest level of the Hayward Gallery. Although a new addition (built in 1968), from here we can take one last look at the Festival of Britain. Laid out in front of us, the Dome of Discovery cuts across the façade of Westminster Palace silhouetted in the distance. The London Eye, as always, oversees proceedings. Old and new London are united in a single vista.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

Blink, and the exhibition spaces dissolve.

The Dome and Skylon have been dismantled for scrap. The Royal Festival Hall remains, but has now been incorporated into the later development, the Southbank Centre. Westminster Palace is still silhouetted in the background (although now it is Big Ben that is in scaffolding rather than the tower of the palace).

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

While nearly all traces of the Festival of Britain may be gone, its legacy continues to capture popular imagination. It endures in the living memory of many who visited the pavilions as children and stared up in awe at the Skylon towering above them while marvelling at the new technologies on display.

Like the Great Exhibition that came a century before, the Festival of Britain continues to capture popular imagination. A forward-looking statement of modernity in its time, it has since become a symbol of the past. Little remains of the site. Just as Crystal Palace was razed by a devastating fire in 1936, the empty spaces on the South Bank evoke the ghosts of what stood here before. Yet, its influence lives on. The International Modernist style of architecture that inspired the Festival’s architects mutated into the Brutalist design of the National Theatre, Hayward Gallery, and British Film Institute built in the 1960s and 1970s. Its spirit lives on. As this walking tour has shown, if you look hard enough, you too may encounter the ghosts of the South Bank.


Kitty Gurnos-Davies
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *